A Recap of the Caldwell Basketball Team’s Historic Playoff Run

Ryan Lawrence

The 2022-23 Caldwell Chiefs basketball team has cemented itself in school history after performing one of the most prolific playoff runs the school has ever seen. They made it to the furthest game a team in their group could, the New Jersey Group 2 finals where they took a harsh loss to Manasquan. Nothing short of amazing, the Chiefs went 24-6 on the season, garnering losses from tough competition such as Seton Hall and Columbia High School. The season itself definitely had an asterisk on it. The 2021-22 season ended in the Sectional State Finals where the Chiefs lost to a tough Newark Central Team. Fortunately, in the county tournament this year they achieved a 50-35 win. 

The first game of the playoffs was against Becton, and while they were a 16 seed, this team had a couple of players that could change the motion of the game, specifically a point guard that could shoot from anywhere on the court. But instead of letting that happen and getting an upsetting first-round exit, the Chiefs huddled up as a team and got out to a commanding lead of 28-8 in the

Photo courtesy of NJ.com

first quarter. They ended up winning the game 68-41 with Science Park on the horizon. 

The next game, Science Park, was not going to be a cakewalk. A young team, the Chargers of Science Park were tremendously talented but were raw and inexperienced. They had beaten a top-20 team earlier in the year, Montclair Immaculate, by one. But in this game, the Chiefs had used a second-half surge in the fourth quarter to beat them 52-36. The next game for the Chiefs was a tough Newark Collegiate team, who had gained a lot of momentum after catching a win against McNair Academy to propel themselves into the sectional semifinals.

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The toughest game yet, Caldwell’s Saturday game against Newark Collegiate was one that went down to the wire. With the playoff schedule, all teams were playing every other day, and then practicing and preparing for the next team in between games. An upset could have been on the horizon if the Chiefs succumbed to fatigue and didn’t start out strong. Newark Collegiate came out of the gate swinging with a lob and a dunk to one of their players, Nagee Graham, which had the packed-out gym erupting for the opposing team. But then the Chiefs did their thing, grinding out the game with the Panthers and were up 30-18 at halftime. Newark Collegiate fought back and kept getting the game close until senior forward Luke Kurzum got fouled and converted on the basket to give his team a momentous one-and-one (The energy of the team is pictured above). The chiefs won the game against Newark Collegiate 55-53 and were close to advancing to the point where they had lost the Sectional finals the year before. 

On Tuesday, February 28, 2023, fans could hear a pin drop in the classrooms of the basketball players. Each kid had their headphones on, blocking out the outside world, getting locked in for the most important basketball game of their lives. Winning this game meant that they could win the game they lost last year, and finally bring a sectional championship back to Caldwell, a task that had not been completed since 1931. 

The task wasn’t easy: Caldwell faced an aggressive and explosive Newark West Side team, led by Senior guard Brandon Rodriquez, who had been averaging 30 points per game for the Roughriders, and had put up 35 in his previous game against Madison. Rodriquez could hurt a team from any spot on the court.

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Going into the game, tickets were sold out and the gym was packed to the brim with fans from both sides. In the back of the Chiefs’ minds was the score of the Newark Central game: 59-55. Senior Guard Lorenzo Sozio put it best: “Last year was terrible. I still remember the score: Central: 59. Us: 55” (NJ.com). Each player returning for this year knew the stakes of this game, and the Chiefs came out to play. From the opening jump ball, Caldwell was in control of the game. Senior Guard Ray Zamloot and Senior Forward Ryan Lawrence did most of the scoring for the Chiefs (Zamloot 25, Lawrence 16) and the whole team contributed to breaking down the Rough Riders full-court press. The Chiefs soared to the biggest victory so far in the playoffs, 66-38, winning the Sectional Championship, and finally getting their get-back game. Senior Ryan Lawrence attributes the win to the hard work that the team put in since their loss. “We worked in the summer, in summer league, shootarounds in hot gyms, in the fall league. Everyone bought into the system that they were running. To get the outcome we wanted is amazing and super-gratifying.” 

Senior Ray Zamloot said, “We knew we wanted to win this, so we just put our heads down, worked, and got it.” On the final day of February, the Chiefs had become victorious and finally crowned themselves sectional champions. 

But, they could not celebrate for long, as that Thursday they were playing in the Regional Championship against Ramsey. Ramsey was another strong force in the north of Caldwell’s group. The most recent contest between Caldwell and Ramsey was in the playoffs of football, where the Chiefs steamrolled Ramsey 42-7. In a neutral location at Elizabeth High School’s large arena, the stands were once again packed, with student sections chirping chants and both teams dialed in for the Regional Group 2 championship. As if by clockwork, Caldwell came out blazing with a dominant 11-2 run to start out the game and ended the first quarter with a 13-3 lead. But, Ramsey showed that they were just as commanding of a team and cut the lead and responded with eight points in the second quarter, which left them trailing by ten at halftime. Coming out of the second half, the Rams gained some steam and cut down Caldwell’s lead to 25-21, with three-pointers from Noah Eide and Michael Stone. Caldwell then responded with an important 10-4 run, which proved effective enough to ultimately win the game, 47-39. Caldwell’s head coach, Mike Fess, credits the win to hard work and grit. “I thought we played very well defensively in the first half. It allows you to get kids in. It allows you to gamble a little defensively, and we were able to do that” (Northjersey.com). Senior guard Rocco Checchetto said, “We know we have guys who are calm, cool, collected for these moments. Playing with confidence is what got us this far. We set the tempo and play hard on defense and offense” (The Star-Ledger). This Regional Championship was the furthest that Caldwell’s program had ever gotten, and they were now awaiting their final game of the season, win or lose, at Rutgers University against No. 9 ranked Manasquan. 

For the first time in the playoffs, Caldwell was the underdog. Manasquan was a powerful force of a team led by Sophomore guard Darius Adams (Ranked No.1 in NJ for 2025 class), who held offers from Rutgers, Syracuse, Seton Hall, and others. The Warriors were also complimented by Junior guard Ryan Frauenheim and a slew of underclassmen who could shoot lights out from anywhere on the court. For the final game of the whole New Jersey 2022-23 basketball season, at 7:00 PM primetime, Caldwell and Manasquan faced off at Jersey Mike’s Arena (Formerly the RAC) for the overall Group 2 state championship. From the start, Manasquan cemented themselves as a tough brick wall to accomplish with their aggressive defensive approach and seamless offense which ran through Adams and Frauenheim. At the end of the first half, Manasquan was up 25-11. Coming out of the second half, Manasquan pulled away with the game with a plethora of three-pointers from everywhere on the court. They end up beating the chiefs and winning 62-29.

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While the Chief’s season might have been soured slightly with the tough loss at the end, what they had accomplished was glorious. They were Group 2 North Regional and Sectional Champions, SEC-Liberty Conference Champions, and West Essex Holiday Tournament Champions, and five players earned conference honors at the end of the year. Ray Zamloot and Rocco Checchetto earned 1st team all-conference, Lorenzo Sozio earned second team, and Ryan Lawrence and Mike Zamloot earned honorable mention. A season full of accomplishments, Zamloot hit every basketball player’s dream milestone with 1,000 total career points. Overall, the winter season was one to remember for the basketball team as they made a case as one of, if not the best Caldwell Basketball team of all time.